By Aaron Isaacs
In the last year the existence of several tourist railroads has been threatened by outside forces, as opposed to internal problems or financial frailty. The Catskill Mountain has been fighting the county that wants to convert it to a walking trail. The Adirondack Scenic’s existing operation isn’t in jeopardy, but the idle track that connects its separated operations is another rail versus trail conflict. The Fillmore & Western, famous as a movie prop, has been evicted by the county that owns the track.
You can add the little Lake Superior & Mississippi to the list. Duluth, MN features the well known Lake Superior Railroad Museum in the former Duluth Union Station. An excellent static display museum, it also runs the county-owned North Shore Scenic Railroad, the former Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range that extends 27 miles to Two Harbors, MN. Together these two attractions tend to overshadow the LS&M, the city’s other and older tourist railroad.
The 5-mile line is a remnant of the Northern Pacific predecessor of the same name that was the first railroad connecting Duluth with the Twin Cities in 1870. It climbed out of town via the St. Louis River valley, which turned out to be a difficult route to build and maintain. Extremely scenic, it traversed large wetlands near Duluth, followed by a pretty spectacular climb up the river’s gorge, featuring a series of very large sidehill wood trestles. Not surprisingly, in 1888 the NP replaced it with an alternate route. The upper portion through the gorge (now Jay Cooke State Park) was retired, with a stub kept to the town of Fond du Lac to serve a couple of shippers. Abandonment finally came in 1979 and the line, by then shortened to New Duluth, was purchased by the City of Duluth.
The Lake Superior Railroad Museum’s non-profit volunteer group, the Lake Superior Transportation Club, began running the railroad as a tourist carrier in 1980. They’re been at it ever since, and are a classic small operation run by volunteers. They run weekends and carry about 5000 passengers each year. The train is pulled by a 64-year old side-rod GE 44-tonner. The consist is a pair of former Duluth Missabe & Iron Range heavyweight coaches that had been downgraded to work train service. Coach-solarium #29 (ACF 1912) sports appropriate walkover seats while coach #85 (also ACF 1912) needed seats from a Southern Pacific lightweight. An open bench ex-Northern Pacific flatcar (Siems-Staubel 1928) trails the consist.
The first mile is over active BNSF track, still in service to reach a shipper, the Tate & Lyle chemical plant. Following a record flood in 2012, this stretch received a pair of new steel trestles.
Once past the chemical plant, the line reverts to 67-pound rail rolled about 1890 and laid on cinder ballast. A couple of short stretches have been upgraded to 100-pound and modest amounts of new ballast has been distributed, but it’s still an antique, wobbly track structure and the lightweight engine makes 10 mph, with periodic slow orders. Hugging the very edge of the riverbank when it isn’t traversing the middle of a large lake doesn’t make maintenance any easier.
It may be a slow ride, but it’s extremely scenic and a real treat during fall colors. After twisting along the shore and crossing Mud Lake on a long fill, it passes under the west end of the double deck Oliver Bridge that carries a highway and the ex-DM&IR, now Canadian National mainline to Superior.
Shortly thereafter the line ends at a runaround track next to a former paint factory now converted to condominiums.
Despite the natural setting, the line skirts a major superfund site, the now-gone United States Steel plant in Morgan Park, a model company town named for J.P. Morgan. Therein lies a threat to the railroad’s future. A portion of the track will have to be removed to get at the bad soil, and the City has told the railroad they don’t intend to replace the track afterwards, having wanted to convert the line to a trail for some time. The North Shore Scenic Railroad is the big show in town these days and the little LS&M may be in jeopardy. The LS&M is putting up a fight, but the odds are currently against it. It’s a rather frail operation with an aging volunteer base. Duluth already has a tourist railroad with a much higher public profile. Stay tuned.